John Kenneth Galbraith, who died on April 29 at 97, was physically (at 6′ 8″) and intellectually imposing. Surveying his lengthy life, one comes upon facts that seem fresh discoveries only to realize they were famous achievements stored in the boxes of other eras.
Some things you may have forgotten or never known about Ken Galbraith: This humane, civilized, witty man was the nation’s price czar during World War II and then a journalist with Henry Luce’s Fortune. With the State Department he directed the postwar US Strategic Bombing Survey, which concluded that the Allied saturation-bombing campaign had negligible success. He was a power player in Democratic politics who had the ear of John Kennedy in the heady days of the New Frontier. As Kennedy’s Ambassador to India he played a major role in cooling the war between India and China. He helped formulate LBJ’s Great Society programs. He wrote an amazing oeuvre of forty-eight books, some of them bestsellers.
His biographer, Richard Parker, a member of our editorial board, insists Galbraith might best be remembered not as a New Dealer or an old-line liberal or a leading Keynesian but as a “contrarian,” an independent thinker. He had, Parker points out, more arguments with other Keynesians than he ever did with his real nemesis, Milton Friedman. He complained that liberals had no new ideas; they just filed away the old ones and resorted to “emptying out the drawers” on demand.
He saw himself as a political economist. He once advised Kennedy not to listen to professional economists’ advice but to follow his own political instincts. Primarily he was a student of corporate power, which in The New Industrial State (1967) he warned was slowly overwhelming American society.
His prose was elegant and lucid. He believed an economist’s job was to elucidate the issues of the day and point out the paths to the good society. In the epigraph for The Affluent Society (1958) he quoted a colleague that “the economist, like everyone else, must concern himself with the ultimate aims of man.” In that book he criticized the national obsession with private consumerism and indifference to the public sphere. But he was also imagining how government could be used to create a better world for all.
The Iraq War repelled him, of course. After all, he had almost single-handedly fought the hawks around Kennedy who advocated sending troops to South Vietnam. From the start he had foreseen that the Vietnam War would overheat the US economy and undermine the New Frontier’s social programs (see Richard Parker, “Galbraith and Vietnam,” March 14, 2005).
The problems he identified are still with us–the dominant privatism and public neglect of a now shakily affluent society, the “democracy of the fortunate,” the excessive corporate power confronted by the ever weaker countervailing power of labor–only they are now hailed as virtues by neocons. As Washington correspondent William Greider wrote last year, “When the right’s rigid ideology falters and breaks down…Americans will need an explanation for what went wrong. They can read Galbraith.”
We’re honored that Galbraith was a Nation Associate, often enclosing a personal note with his contribution to the magazine. In February he sent what would be his last one. He closed: “Continue. Do not relent. Without ‘The Nation’ the worst in the nation would have some slight added protection. It is for this I contribute, not mass enlightenment.”
He died peacefully, telling his doctor before he sank into a coma: “I’ve had enough now.” It had been a wonderfully full and productive life.